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Fingerstyle Guitar On The YouTube Frontier

Updated on August 2, 2013

Finger Picking Guitar aka Fingerstyle

Sweet Baby James

Way back in the 1970’s I first heard James Taylor play Fire & Rain on the radio one morning on my way to school. The finger picking style struck me immediately and I remember saying, “That’s the way I want to play!” My excitement fell on deaf ears as I was riding with a couple of my fellow band members who weren’t as impressed. “What? Are you crazy?”, I remember one of them saying. We were a rock band and songs by James Taylor weren’t exactly on our set list. Despite their protests I managed to work in Fire & Rain somewhere along the line. I was sixteen. After hearing that song I spent the next ten years or so working on my finger picking. The problem was volume. I remember using plastic steel-guitar picks which were cumbersome and hurt my fingers. I tried glued on plastic fingernails that looked weird and didn’t really work. During that time my flat picking suffered. I put fingerpicking on the shelf, occasionally breaking out Stairway to Heaven(“No Stairway!!!”) once in a while. I concentrated on alternate picking with a little help from Michael Angelo Batio VHS tapes. Thanks Mike! I played blues and retro rock in several bands through the years. Somewhere in my 50’s I came across Tommy Emmanuel and my love of fingerstyle guitar was reborn.

Chet Atkins & Tommy Emmanuel C.G.P’s

Chester “Chet” Burton Atkins had a legendary guitar career that started after high school culminating with 14-Grammys and 9-C.M.A. Instrumentalist of the Year Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1997 Billboard Magazine awarded him their Century Award, their highest honor for distinguished creative achievement. Over the years his picking style incorporated the use of a flat pick and his middle and ring finger. Somewhere during his career he began using his thumb and index finger often using a thumb pick. He became so adept at this particular style of picking that it became a trademark of his playing style. I remember watching him on TV playing Dixie on the G, B & E strings and Yankee Doodle on the top E,A & D strings at the same time. He was a true master of his instrument. Down under in Australia a young 7-year old professional guitarist named Tommy Emmanuel became a fan and started to play along with Atkins on the radio. It is said that he even wrote to Chet as a young boy and was surprised when Atkins answered back with words of encouragement. The two finally met and in 1997 cut an album together entitled “The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World”. Sadly, it would be Chet Atkins’ last album before he died. In 1999 Atkins bestowed the title of C.G.P. “Certified Guitar Player” on Tommy. It was a title he gave himself along with his brother Jim, John Knowles, Jerry Reed, Marcel Dadi and Steve Wariner. If you YouTube Tommy, you will see why he is my all time favorite player. His rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"(See link below) showcases his picking style and creative use of harmonics. He is the originator of three contact point harmonics where he frets notes with his left hand simultaneously touching the harmonic with the index finger of his right hand while using a thumb pick at the same time. He rarely uses alternate tunings with the exception of drop D. Cowboy’s Dream(See link below), which I am still working on, is in a D-tuning(D-G-D-G-B-E). Tommy Emmanuel is a gifted fingerstylist with two dozen albums and countless awards to his credit. He was featured on the famous Woodsongs Radio Hour and enjoys global notoriety with yearly tours and appearances at various guitar festivals all over the world. Tommy’s real gift to the guitar world is the heartfelt honesty of his original music. His songs are inspirational in both creativity and technique.

YouTube & CandyRat Records

Fingerstyle guitar or finger picking has gained popularity in recent years primarily due to it’s exposure on YouTube. Andy McKee soared into popular guitar culture in 2006 on YouTube(44 million views!) with his signature song “Drifting”(See link below) which incorporates alternate tuning, finger picking and percussive riffs on the guitar body. He promptly signed with CandyRat Records, the home of virtuoso finger stylists such as Antoine Dufour, Ewan Dobson, Gareth Pearson, Jimmy Wahlsteen, Stefano Barone and the incomparable Don Ross among others. Look these names up on YouTube and prepare to be amazed. The intricacy and precision with which these gifted artists paint their melodic murals have taken fingerstyle guitar into a whole new dimension. YouTube is a virtual treasure trove of guitar tutorials. Fingerstyle guitar aside, it is my opinion that YouTube has done more for the educational advancement of the average guitarist than any other form of guitar education to date. It has definitely made me a better guitarist than I ever thought I could be.

Domo Arigato Mr. Nakagawa-San

In my YouTube ramblings I came across a beautiful melody that I found particularly exciting. It was a song titled Hana/Flower by Masaaki Kishibe. Though not well known in the U.S., Kishibe enjoys a solid fan base in Asia. In 2003 he took 2nd in the Walnut Valley Festival Fingerstyle Guitar Competition in Kansas, subsequently touring with former Walnut Valley winner Andy McKee in Taiwan. Japan has a wealth of guitar genius. It’s most famous is Isato Nakagawa. Born in Osaka, Japan in 1947, Nakagawa has devoted his life to the study of music particularly fingerstyle guitar. He was the mentor of Masaaki Kishibe and has released numerous albums, tablature and music books throughout his career. His signature song “Clarence”(See link below) is a shining example of his unique style and musical artistry. Andy McKee toured with Nakagawa, Kishibe and Jacques Stotzem in 2003 and wrote a tribute song to him entitled Nakagawa-san. Isato Nakagawa has been a pioneer in promoting fingerstyle guitar in Asian countries, primarily through his acquaintance with Huang Chia-Wei, a famous Taiwanese guitarist and producer. Together they established a guitar network bringing fingerstyle guitar to the attention of university students through numerous concerts and workshops. Japan not only appreciates fingerstyle guitarists but enjoys a healthy shred guitar fan base as well. Shred is a lead guitar(Electric) fast picking technique utilizing alternate picking, sweep picking and economy picking on arpeggiated chords. Shred experts often use diminished and harmonic minor scales in a mixolydian mode which is usually associated with neo-classical metal. Shred virtuosos like Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and John Petrucci regularly tour the island nation playing to huge crowds that rival those in the U.S. Japan is also the home to some of the world’s finest luthiers. Iconic brands like Ibanez, Takamine, Edwards, Caparison and Yairi Guitars all have Japanese origins.

It’s Not As Hard As You Think

Finger picking isn't as hard as you might think. It’s mostly a feeling. You’ve got to feel the strings and feel the music with your fingers. Of course you have to have some basic knowledge of the guitar to start with. I started at sixteen and had only been playing for three years. Just start with some basic chords that you are comfortable with and begin by using your thumb, index and middle finger. Use your thumb for the bass strings E and A. Try to get something going with the other two or even three. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is. Don’t look at your picking hand, just try to feel your way through it. Eventually you’ll get the “feel” of the strings and you’ll be on your way. Start simple. “Bum Duty” is a little onomatopoeia(Man that word is harder to say and spell than finger picking a fast blue grass tune!)that I use with students starting fingerstyle. The “Bum” represents the bass note and the “Duty” other two or more notes. There are a wealth of finger picking tutorials on YouTube at your disposal. Use YouTube no matter what kind of guitarist you are!

Post Script

I have just discovered an amazing talent on YouTube. His name is Gregory Johnson and his YouTube site is Acoustic Labs. Please click on the link below and be totally amazed and awestruck. His music is available on I-Tunes. He currently has 54-videos available on YouTube. If you are a fingerstylist or just a fan of this style you owe it to yourself to see this truly great guitarist.

No Picks Just Fingers

Hana/Flower by Masaaka Kishibe (For Jan Bates)


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    • GuitarGear profile image

      Walter Holokai 4 years ago from Youngstown, Ohio


      I definitely play Dust in the Wind and would be my pleasure to jam with you anytime. I don't know if you might know Holokai Rd. which is on the way to Hana on Maui which is my last name, actually it's Holokai-Naniho. My father was born in Peahi, Maui. The the reason I learned this song was because of Hana. Lately I've been playing some Slack-key tunes. As you probably already know slack-key guitar tunings and fingerstyle guitar originated in Hawaii. At the end of my "Breedlove..." hub I am playing a song by Tommy Emmanuel called Cowboy's Dream which Tommy often refers to as Hawaiian Cowboy's Dream because of the tuning. Thanks so much for your comment. I'm so glad we have connected.

    • hawaiianodysseus profile image

      Hawaiian Odysseus 4 years ago from Southeast Washington state

      Beautiful finger picking, Walt! Hana is a town on the island of Maui, so even if Masa Kishibe had a different meaning for HANA in mind, I'm hearing the music as a Hawaiian who misses the islands. Wow! You play very well. I'm a couple years older than you, but I still have some pipes. I bet you play a mean "Dust in the Wind." If I ever run into you, let's jam--your guitar and my vocals. : ) I'm honored to share in a mutual following with you. Aloha!

    • GuitarGear profile image

      Walter Holokai 4 years ago from Youngstown, Ohio

      Thanks Jen!

    • Jen Pearson profile image

      Jen Pearson 4 years ago from Alabama

      I'm not that much of a guitar or music fan but I found this interesting and the music beautiful. Thanks for sharing!